- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Democratic lawmakers in Maryland, though split on legislation to introduce slots gambling in the state, are unified in opposing Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state’s first Republican governor in more than three decades.

This is the first time both chambers have had slots bills to reconcile since Mr. Ehrlich made the issue the centerpiece of his legislative agenda in 2003, but the Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate have refused to negotiate.

Despite their differences on slots, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George’s County and House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County have been united in thwarting Ehrlich initiatives and criticizing the administration.

“We agree on most things,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat. “But there are two big issues where the House and Senate disagree, and that’s slots and further tort reform.”

“There is some unity because there is a Republican in the governorship,” said Republican strategist Kevin Igoe. “But on the big message of spending, taxes and spending priorities, there is a wide separation within the Democratic Party.”

Democratic lawmakers this year have overturned an Ehrlich veto of a medical malpractice reform bill that contained a new tax, called for investigations of the administration’s role in rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and sponsored legislation that would make the insurance commissioner an elected position.

In addition, Democrats have weighed a proposed state constitutional amendment that would require legislative approval of any governor’s plans for disposing of state land — a reaction to an aborted Ehrlich administration plan to sell preservation land to a construction executive last year.

Most recently, the Senate has approved and the House appears likely to pass a bill that would increase the minimum wage by $1 per hour, to $6.15. Mr. Ehrlich has opposed the legislation as an anti-business measure that could force companies to lay off workers.

Democratic leaders have been selective in their support of Ehrlich initiatives.

Mr. Busch backed the governor’s efforts to reform the state’s medical malpractice insurance system. But during a special legislative session last year, he surprised and angered Mr. Ehrlich by presenting his own version of the reform bill, which watered down several of Mr. Ehrlich’s plans.

Mr. Miller has been a longtime supporter of legalizing slots, and the Senate had approved slots legislation each year since 2003.

When the House last month passed a slots bill for the first time in three years, Mr. Busch issued an ultimatum, saying the Senate and Mr. Ehrlich must accept his chamber’s version or else have no slots legislation this year.

Mr. Miller said he “absolutely, positively, unequivocally” will not allow a floor vote on the House version.

The Senate president added: “The failure to adopt a meaningful slots bill by the House and Senate is a failure of leadership and there will be consequences in 2006, and rightfully so.”

Mr. Busch countered: “First of all, I am not taking lessons from [Mr. Miller] on leadership. … I think I will be reflected by the support in my chamber, not by whether Mike Miller thinks I am a leader or not.”

Former state Democratic Party Chairman Isiah “Ike” Leggett said the “disagreements don’t come as some great surprise.”

“I don’t think this will drive a wedge between the two,” he said.

The House plan would authorize 9,500 slot machines in Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties and Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County — down from the 15,500 machines at seven venues sought by the Senate and Mr. Ehrlich. It also calls for all slots revenue to be used for school construction.

The Senate’s version would designate $150 million from slots revenue to be spent on school construction each year for eight years. Mr. Ehrlich, who estimates that slots would generate as much as $800 million a year in revenue, had earmarked $100 million for school construction.

“I think, clearly, when you have as many different issues that cut across the General Assembly as we have had in the last two years, there are going to be some differences, and that’s natural,” Mr. Leggett said.

“This is the most pronounced difference that you would see, and it has been there for a number of years, and my hope is that there will be some resolution.”

Democratic senators have expressed an interest in again taking up the slots issue — in 2007, after next year’s gubernatorial and General Assembly elections.

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